Standing our Ground

When the Church cannot meet as it is in the habit of doing, when we resort to prerecorded messages and electronic means of staying connected, when the very house of worship built by the faithful is emptied out, it causes us to think beyond the effects of a virus and the desire to protect the vulnerable. Slowly we begin to see we are not merely in a rough spot or having a hard time, but we are, in fact, under attack. There is real opposition to the Church, real forces at work seeking to stifle and confuse our worship. There are those who have thought for a long time that our faith is meaningless in the grand scheme of things and now they press hard to prove their point. Can they stop our practice? Can they end our gathering? Will we make a stand? Will we resist? Will we at least attempt to dig in our heels and fight back, or will we simply roll over and let our enemy have its way with us?

To be honest, sometimes I doubt we will stand our ground. I come into an empty sanctuary and look around at the places you used to sit, and I wonder if this church has what it takes to press on. But you know what shakes me out of it? You know what gives me hope? It is not big things but small, little things. There are these moments where I have been able to visit, however briefly, with the children of God. It is the voice of little Olivia singing along to the liturgy sitting with her family in the front row as they come to receive the gifts of Christ. There is something of great strength and hope in her voice. It was the smile on the face of Jeanne Hecksel when I went to bring her communion the other day just a few days before her 90th birthday. There was a confident resolve in her quiet demeanor. It was Eric stopping by my study to talk about all the things going on in our city. To embrace a brother with a hug, to express our concerns and talk honestly about hopes and fears was empowering. In fact, it was that very conversation where I was reminded of the true tool of our enemy, the main weapon wielded against the people of God. It is not violence or the oppression of a police state. It is not financial undermining and slanderous gossip. No, the face of the enemy as we find it today is fear.

Fear is the great specter that tears and claws at the body of Christ. Fear separates families and keeps us shuttered in our homes. I was talking with a friend the other day who was telling me about going to his mom’s house for Mother’s Day. She had been in a strict self-quarantine for almost 2 months. She had not visited with her son or spent any time with her grandchildren. Fear of this virus, fear of the possibility of death, fear kept them separated. He said when they came in, she simply broke down. She cried and cried realizing how much she had missed them, how much she needed the company of others, the fellowship of her own family. Fear spreads faster and is far more dangerous than the coronavirus ever was. But how do you defeat fear? What is the remedy to an enemy that hides in our nightmares?

Saint Peter, in his epistle, calls for the Church to rise above fear, to shake-it-off if you will. He says, “Have no fear, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Instead of fear, you are called to honor Christ in your hearts. You are called to be ready to give a reason, a defense if you will, for the hope you have. The antidote to fear is hope, a hope dwelling in you. A hope rooted in Christ alone. Amid all the reasons you might have to fear, Peter calls for you to turn away from them and fix your gaze somewhere else, to fix your gaze upon your Lord. We are look to Christ and there we will find the way forward.

What do we see when we turn our eyes away from the nightly news, away from the latest COVID-19 death tolls and, instead, fix them on our Lord? We see a Savior. We see the love of God in action. As Peter says, we see one who, “…suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). Turning to our Lord we see the great depth of His love. We see one who suffers for sins not His own so He might bring you to God. Think of that, He was willingly cut-off from His Father so you might be brought into His presence. He was cut down so you might live.

The reason for your hope in the face of fear is rooted in the totality of your Lord’s work to give to you eternal life. There is hope because he did not leave any little bit aside that depended on your action, your effort, your desire to complete. He did it all. From the heights of the Heavens to the depths of Hell, Christ has proclaimed your salvation. Peter says Jesus, “…went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:19-20). This is where we get our language in the Creed, where we confess Christ, “…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into Hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.” He goes down into the depths of the enemy’s stronghold, into the place where fear is the norm and proclaims His victory.

Now that is pretty awesome. This is the type of courage and hope in the face of fear we can really rally behind. But it gets even better. Not only has Jesus proclaimed victory in Hell, not only has He destroyed the finality of the grave and exposed the illusion of fear, He then gives all of it to you. And I do not mean He makes some distant wish dream and says, “Good luck, I’m sure it will all work out in the end.” No, when Peter recalls the days of Noah we are reminded of the Ark and the deliverance of eight person through the water. Peter says,

“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

All Christ has done, all He has accomplished is given to you in the washing of Holy Baptism. It is physically poured over your heads and the promises of God are attached to that sacred washing. There is a reason many baptismal fonts are eight sided. There is a reason some churches are built in the shape of an octagon. It recalls those eight souls surviving through the flood, delivered through water to a new home by the grace of God. If you are baptized you participate in the blessings of God. The promise of salvation, the promise of life, the gift that even if you die you will still live. All of it flows from these waters; waters which connect you to the cross and the empty tomb. If you are not baptized, if you are unsure in the face of fear and uncertainty all around, He invites you today, to claim you as His own, to declare you belong to the one who defeated sin and death and with it the specter of fear itself.

This is the reason for the hope we have. This is how we stand our ground before the fear that grips our age. We stand as those who have been given the gifts of Christ. You have a promise that reaches beyond this age and connects you to the saints past and present. You do not hide behind the Bible or cower behind the cross in the hopes it will defend you from the fear. No, you stand your ground for in you dwells the promise of Christ alone. Perhaps this virus and all the related activity to it is a delightful gift from our God. Perhaps it shakes us free from the flimsy scaffolding of our own making, pretending to be security and strength. Rather, we dig in our heels firmly on the Rock of Christ, on His promise of forgiveness and eternal life, and we defy the fear that would tear us apart. For we are the baptized, the holy ones, the saints of God.